By Simon Woodhouse
Hands up, everyone who's ever wanted to fly their own plane. Ok, now keep your hands up if you think you're ever likely to be able to afford your own plane. I'm seeing less hands. Never mind, because there is a much more affordable (and safer) way to learn to fly than actually having to get airborne.
Flying a remote control (RC) plane is exactly the same as flying a real one, except you're not in it. The principles of RC flight, and the systems that control the plane and keep it in the air, are no different to those that govern something the size of a 747. However, an RC plane is considerably cheaper to own and run, and takes up a lot less space.
If you're new to the world of RC planes, all the different types can at first seem a little daunting. But not to worry, because being a beginner actually means things are a lot simpler. For a start, if you're new to the whole idea of learning to fly, you're going to want to begin with a nice, basic sort of plane that won't cost a fortune. Another thing you won't want as a newbie is excessive speed. There's nothing worse than trying to control an RC plane when everything is happening far too quickly. For this reason, electric planes make the ideal choice for the novice.
In years gone by, owning an RC plane meant first of all you had to build it. Even if this was from a kit, it still took a bit of know how. Luckily, over recent years, ARF (Almost Ready to Fly) planes have come onto the market. These require virtually no self-assembly, and decent packages contain everything you need to get airborne. In the standard ARF kit you'll find the plane itself, the radio controller, the motor and the battery. The best type of ARF for the beginner is the park flyer. This is a generic term, and it refers to planes that have a relatively slow top speed, are lightweight, offer gentle turning capabilities and also tend to be self-righting (which means if you screw up they'll return themselves to level flight). The batteries are rechargeable, and if used with the right adapter can be plugged into the cigarette lighter in a car.
In the world of RC planes, size is important. Bigger might not be better, but if you're just starting out it does have its advantages. A small plane, with a wingspan of 36" or less, will require a bit more skill to handle. 40" - 48" wingspans are much better for the beginner. Not only do planes of this dimension turn a little more gently, they're also easier to see. And whilst we're on the subject of keeping an eye on the plane, vivid colors can help you with this. If the top of the wing is a bright color, and the underside a darker shade, it's easier to judge the planes orientation.
Ok, so you've got your plane and you're ready to go, what next? Though you might be itching to get out there and take to the skies, flying an RC plane, even a beginner's model, takes a bit of practice. If you can be shown what to do by someone who's had a lot of practice, then learning will be that much easier. Joining an RC plane club really is a must. Having someone show you the basics of controlling the plane will save a lot of time (not to mention embarrassing crashes). However, knowing some of the basics in advance won't hurt.
When it comes to learning to fly an RC plane, taking-off is the best place to start. Not all planes can perform a conventional take-off, i.e. rolling along the ground on their wheels, but most can be hand-launched. To do this, first of all make sure you've switched on the controller (which transmits the signal), and the receiver on the plane. Then turn on the planes motor and have it running at full power. Face into the wind, holding the plane at head height and by the fuselage. With the controller in your other hand, give the plane a firm push, with either the nose level with the ground or pointing slightly downward. Do not launch with the nose pointing upwards, as this is likely to cause the plane to stall. As soon as the plane is airborne, take hold of the controller with both hands and have your thumbs ready on the sticks. Try to make sure the controller aerial is pointing at forty-five degrees, as this angle offers maximum signal coverage.
Small, gentle movements of the controller sticks are important. Sudden movements often lead to over-compensating, which in turn leads to crashing (something you don't want). It goes without saying that you need to take care about where you fly your plane. Avoid people, trees, buildings, power lines etc. Also, you don't want the plane going too high, or out of range of the transmitter. An altitude of about forty feet is fine, and aim for a distance where by you can see exactly what the plane is doing.
After a gentle (and hopefully successful first flight), it's time to land. Always land into the wind wherever possible. Landings with the wind blowing from behind the plane don't work, and usually turn into crashes. Take plenty of time to line the plane up with where you want it to land. It doesn't matter how many times you have to circle back round and have another go, the important thing is to get the landing right.
Learning to fly an electric RC plane usually leads on to bigger and better things. Gas powered (nitro methane) planes, and even jets are available for the better-practiced flyer to have a go at. As with all hobbies, flying RC planes can devour serious amounts of cash, but the rewards are worth it. There's also a healthy market for well looked after secondhand equipment, so buying up isn't necessarily going to break the bank. So, with a bit of patience and some careful practice, the sky's the limit (pun definitely intended).